Rot Sorn (right) and her husband in front of their restaurant in Akron, Ohio.
Akron, OH – Even when Rot Sorn, owner of Lyeh Thai in Akron, lived in Thailand she was in the food industry. She owned her own restaurant, worked as the head chef, and sold prepared food in the local market to make ends meet. When she resettled in the United States she was able to use her skills and work as a sushi chef in Hudson. “I made sushi for 10 years,” Sorn explained. “It was hard though.”
Sorn remembers the endless hours and ongoing language barriers she had with her employers throughout the years that made it difficult for her to be able to reach her goal to be self sufficient. Her employers did not speak any Asian dialects. And so, the language barriers lead to a lot of exploitation by employers and caused a lot of emotional distress for Sorn. “I borrowed money from friends because I wasn’t making a lot when I worked as a sushi chef,” she said.
With her limited income, some nights were harder than others. “There were many nights I went hungry,” Sorn recalls. Regardless of her circumstances, Sorn persevered in her pursuit to open her own restaurant in the United States. “The entrepreneur is the single most important player in a modern economy,” said Edward Lazear, Stanford economics professor and former chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers. A frequently held view, often supported by research, is that immigrants are especially entrepreneurial and Sorn is no exception.
In August 2017, ASIA, Inc.’s Small Business Development Assistant Thet Win helped Sorn secure a $10,000 micro-loan to open her restaurant, Lyeh Thai in Akron. It was through Win’s months of dedication to through interpreting services, English assistance, and financial guidance that Sorn was able to secure the loan. “Sometimes [people] need assistance in English and technical support related to electronic devices,” said Win, who came to the United States as a refugee in 2009. In order to successfully catalyze local mainstreet business development, a significant investment must be made in linguistically appropriate and culturally competent business development programs.
According to the National CAPACD Small Business, Big Dreams 2018 report, Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) entrepreneurs cited limited English proficiency as a major barrier to starting or operating a business. In the same report, AAPI entrepreneurs also cited language as a barrier to communicating with banks or financial institutions. When asked, Sorn says she could not have achieved her dream without ASIA. “I’m stronger with ASIA,” Sorn says. “I’ve grown up with ASIA. I could not have opened my restaurant without their help.” The emotional support from Win and ASIA helped Sorn focus on her dream. Sorn explained there were many times that the thought of pursuing her dream was too overwhelming.
“Our goal with the micro-loans program is to not only provide empowerment to communities and individuals through financial assistance but we also hope to empower them with our time listening, assisting in any way possible, and being a cultural bridge for individuals and their entrepreneurial dreams,” Susan Wong, ASIA’s Chief Program Officer explains. Win is passionate about seeing the restaurant succeed and even helps take orders on some weekend days. Recently, Win was able to help Sorn secure another loan to help move into a bigger space for the restaurant. The new restaurant is a symbol of Sorn’s perseverance and the American Dream. “[Thet and ASIA] have given me so much encouragement and strength to continue,” Sorn said. The new restaurant is set to open in the fall.
For over two decades, ASIA, Inc. has provided programs and services vital to the community. We offer assistance and basic needs support services to over 58,000 individuals and families, our new Americans, annually throughout Northeast Ohio. Please join ASIA, Inc. as we celebrate 23 years of community service with this year’s theme — Communities Thriving Through Entrepreneurship — and support the strengthening of our community through immigrant and refugee entrepreneurs.
All proceeds from our 2019 Annual Gala and Fundraiser directly support our mission to empower and advocate for Asian Americans & Pacific Islanders (AAPIs); and to provide AAPIs and other communities access to quality, culturally, and linguistically appropriate information, health, and social services.
For more information about this year’s gala, visit the webpage here.